The white working-class have been in the spotlight just lately, or under the hammer, depending on your point of view. But while BBC2's White season has depicted this oddly elusive species as frustrated, marginalised and angry, Pramface Babies showed working-class mothers as creatures overflowing with hope, romance, and love desperate to find an object.
To begin with, Philippa Robinson's film, which followed four young mothers at the Liverpool Women's Hospital, seemed to confirm all the nasty caricatures of feckless teenage motherhood contained in its title. First up was Laura, 20, in labour and trying, between contractions, to hunt down the baby's father by phone: "I haven't seen your Terry in two weeks, I was wondering if you'd be able to get in touch with him for me. I don't know why, but I'm in hospital now, I'm any minute supposed to give birth." Perhaps that sentence contained the key to Terry's evasiveness, if only she dared look. In interview, too, Laura seemed cripplingly short on nous. She'd got pregnant, it seemed, partly because she had somehow picked up the notion that the pill had a hangover effect, and would work even if you weren't taking it any more. In her case, though, the gap between pill and pregnancy was a credulity-straining year. She finally got Terry on the phone after the baby was born: "No, he's dead small, seven pounds six. What do you mean, has he got a big chopper? Oh my god, you dirty..." But what was most striking was how much she was in love with Terry, and with the idea of motherhood: "At least I've got a gorgeous little boy out of it. That's all that matters."
Next came Linzi, 19, and pregnant for the second time in just over a year. She'd split up with Andy before the first baby was born, but then they'd had a brief reconciliation and now, whoops, here we were again. At least Andy turned up for the labour, to sit there munching crisps and looking gormless. This turned out to be something of a front. Away from Linzi (and, more the point maybe, her mother), he turned out to be an articulate, even eloquent analyst of their situation. He admitted to being a prick,"still am a considerable prick." He and Linzi had been "on and off more times than a light switch". He attributed the "turbulence" in their relationship to the fact that "we're still petulant teenagers". If you're man enough to create a child and not man enough to provide for it, he argued, you ought to be shot. Seven months later, he was still living with his mother, while Linzi brought up the children; but he was involved, and she was still hopeful.
The saddest case was Kerrie, 17, and keen to have a child she could love the way her parents hadn't loved her. When she was six, she was picked up from school by the social services, because her parents had been arrested for possessing heroin, and after that it was care and foster homes. It felt as if she was pinning an awful lot on Dan, the taciturn father, who was still living with his mother. Once the baby was born, she insisted, he would start doing a lot more to help her; the clucking of prematurely counted chickens seemed to drown out the conversation. But a couple of months on, he was still there, still glum, but apparently in love (he listened in while she read out the gushing valentine he had sent her), apparently determined to do the right thing. Finally, there was Krista, 20, who seemed to have strayed in from another film altogether. David, her baby's father, was bald and tubby and clearly didn't believe his luck in having landed her: a model couple.
What the film didn't tell you was how these people lived, what prospects they had for themselves and their children – maybe the most important questions. But it showed that behind tedious politicians' and columnists' tirades about teenaged single mums, there is a world of tenderness and yearning; there's something wrong with our society that it can't find more fruitful outlets.
Sexual mores on Merseyside couldn't be much more different from Gyantse in Tibet. In the second part of A Year in Tibet, we met Dondan, his two brothers, and their wife: sharing a wife is, apparently common practice, a way of centralising the manpower needed to keep a farm going. The film also followed Tseden, one of Dundan's brothers and a shaman, as he conducted a wedding. In Tibet, brides are traditionally kept in the dark about marriage arrangements until the last minute, which under the circumstances is not too surprising. On the whole, I think the Scouse way may be preferable – at least it allows the woman some freedom of choice.
Given the utterly fascinating material, A Year in Tibet ought to be better than it is. Perhaps I should resist the temptation to compare it to Phil Agland's ravishing Beyond the Clouds, about life in rural China, which was nearly 15 years ago. But what I remember about that series was the gentle pace. Here, the shots are often beautiful, but the camera is never allowed to linger – it pans or cuts before you can consider what you have seen. It feels at odds with the lives being portrayed.Reuse content